ATLANTA - Parties in contested rate cases would not be allowed to engage in private conversations with members of Georgia's Public Service Commission under a rule given tentative approval by the PSC Tuesday.
The proposed ban on "ex parte" talks between commissioners and representatives of the utilities they regulate was up for a final vote.
But because commissioners narrowly approved an amendment introduced by Commissioner Doug Everett of Albany, the rule must go through an additional public comment period before returning to the panel for a final decision.
The commission voted in March to begin preparing an ex parte rule to bring Georgia in line with the 48 other states that already prohibit utility officials from going behind closed doors to discuss contested rate cases with industry regulators.
Commissioner Angela Speir of Duluth, who introduced the proposal, argued that the current system gives utilities with the time and money to seek to influence the PSC an unfair advantage over the rate-paying public.
"I represent all of the people of Georgia, the people who walk the halls here and the people who don't," Speir said Tuesday.
But Commissioner Stan Wise of Marietta said imposing what amounts to a gag order on conversations between members of the PSC and parties in rate cases is unconstitutional.
"I believe this rule stifles free speech," he said.
The amendment sparked a heated exchange between Everett and Speir, reaching a point where commission Chairman Bobby Baker asked the two to show some decorum.
Under the amendment, the ex parte rule would apply not just to parties that have formally entered a rate case but to any company or organization acting "in concert with" one of the parties.
Everett said the change would strengthen the rule. He said it would prevent consumer or environmental groups from "gaming the system" by having only one formally enter a case as an intervenor while others lobby unrestricted behind the scenes.
"I want to make sure everybody is fully under this rule, and that's what this does," he said.
But Speir said the language in the amendment is ambiguous.
"How do you determine a party working 'in concert with' someone else?" she asked.
Speir accused Everett of using the amendment to stall final action on the rule.
"The timing of this 11th-hour maneuver is suspect," she said. "I just find it completely appalling."
But Everett said he has been pushing for months to expand the scope of the rule. He also vowed to vote for the final version of the ban.
"Why you want to continue opening loopholes is beyond me, unless you're being disingenuous," he told Speir.
After commissioners adopted Everett's amendment 3-2, the underlying rule passed 4-1, with Wise accounting for the only "no" vote.
Baker said he would schedule a final vote for next month.